23 February 2009

Intuition and the Senior Executive

In an age where management data has grown exponentially, executives are drowning in too much data. While the average manager still in the 1980´s had a limited amount of data, today´s managers are deluged by masses of data from multiple information sources.

In practice, however, most managers survive on pretty little information. Most of it is not even formalized data, but based on observations, random encounters, and informal exchange of experiences. Therefore, executives gauge their understanding of strategic and choice situations by checking with co-managers and with their own intuition.

The information from such non-formal data sources act as an important anchor for decision making. Whereas, formal data only supports the decision, or - with clever, disciplined managers - serves as a counter-test or check, in case the decision turns out wrong in the end anyway.

Realistically, managers are by far not the impartial information processors that compute the "objective" data and then spit out the right decision. Still, it is troubling to see managers blindly following the trend to just decide on their mood or feelings only. The best managers exercise a kind of disciplined intuition that contains both data and a feeling for the right direction.

What is required for the success of such "disciplined intuition" as a basis for decision making?
  1. First of all, the executive needs to have enough experience (10 or more years) to develop such a gut feeling for the right "patterns" of how things work, i.e. expertise
  2. Also, executives need to have the freedom to fail; more exactly, they need to be able to make mistakes and learn through trial and error; see here
  3. Executives then need to be part of networks, where they can sound off their ideas and feelings with congenial colleagues; free, open discussion is critical, whereas singular decision making easily leads to disaster; see here
  4. Intuition needs to be disciplined with rigorous thinking and testing, otherwise the executive manages the business to the ground, see Drucker´s warning: “I believe in intuition only if you discipline it. The ´hunch´ artists, the ones who make a diagnosis but don´t check it out with the facts, with what they observe, are the ones, who, in medicine, kill people and, in management, kill businesses.”

Hopefully, then, managers are leading with both experience and data. One alone would lead to disaster and crisis, only together they show the path to performance and success.

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